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Mr. Peter Ainsworth: Does my hon. Friend agree that some people choose not to have television and argue that their lives are much richer as a result?

Mr. Atkinson: My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who has just bought a television, survived for a long time without one. I never mention the exact location of that part of my constituency where television is not available because I fear that if I did, many people would flock there so that their children could not watch television. It is good news that such people will have access to television in the future.

I must pay tribute to the BBC because it is not generally realised that its digital satellite services are available to such people free of charge. There is potential for great improvement in that area because, if people are prepared to purchase a set-top box and a decoder card from the BBC, they will be able to receive all BBC digital services, including BBC Choice and BBC News 24, and Channels 4 and 5. However, people will not receive ITV 1 and ITV 2--and I shall turn to that issue in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and I have a long-standing disagreement about this subject. I do not think that a disagreement between two commercial companies can be dismissed lightly as a spat. It may seem like a spat to him, but it is a fundamental point of principle arising from the question of platform universality. Those people who want free-to-air services cannot receive ITV because the two

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companies refuse, for commercial reasons, to make it available to a satellite platform. In all fairness, BSkyB is compelled to make its programmes available on all platforms. I believe that we should hold absolutely to the principle of platform universality.

That problem will affect not only those who cannot access television but those who cannot get digital terrestrial television signals for ONdigital or one or two multiplexes lower down the spectrum--I hope that that is the correct technical term. Although digital services are aimed at more than 95 per cent. of people, the programmes will be available only on multiplex one--the BBC's multiplex. Only 90 per cent. of people will ultimately be able to receive ONdigital services.

The effect would be that next Wednesday, for example, many of those people who wanted to watch the match between Bayern Munich--I am not a great football supporter--and Rangers would be unable to do so. Although such a match would be of enormous interest to people in Scotland, at least 10 per cent. of Scots would not be able to watch it--even when the full digital roll-out is completed and even if they wished to pay to watch it on digital. That service will not be available.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): Is my hon. Friend aware that, even in the sophisticated south, I, as a Scot, was unable to watch Scotland play Spain at rugby because Meridian has not signed a BSkyB contract?

Mr. Atkinson: That is an important issue, and I am sorry that I cannot convince my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey in that regard. People must have choice, whether one pays for a service or receives it free, and such services should be available on a universal platform. The Government must intervene when they review the regulations to ensure that it is part of the package deal.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): To complete the hon. Gentleman's education about both Scotland and football, I must point out, in all fairness, that about 10 per cent. of Scottish television viewers would choose not to watch Rangers play any team.

Mr. Atkinson: That may be so, but people should be able to exercise self-censorship. It is rather frustrating if some of the 90 per cent. of people who want to watch the match cannot do so, even if they pay for the privilege.

I understand the reason for that situation. The previous Government wanted to allow ONdigital to get off the ground, and they thought that it would do so if it was sheltered from too much competition. ONdigital has signed up 400,000 subscribers, and the time is rapidly coming when it should be able to face the full blast of competition and make its programmes available to all.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I know that my hon. Friend has for a long time strongly believed that the matter is one of important principle. I did not wish to belittle its importance. Indeed, I drew attention to the difficulty because of its impact on the take-up of digital television. The question is how to resolve the problem. He and I may disagree about that, but I have no doubt that it needs early resolution. The Government should work with those in the industry who are responsible to achieve an early solution

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because the public are confused and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) suggests, getting angry.

Mr. Atkinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. We have made progress on that matter, which needs to be resolved urgently. It causes great confusion and we cannot wait two years for the proposed broadcasting Bill. Having scored a minor victory, I shall sit down.

11.31 am

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): It is interesting that, in a debate on new technology, it is almost as if pride is taken in ignorance of that technology. If we are to make the right political and commercial decisions, we have to take care to understand what the technology makes possible. I have an engineering background, and I find that the pace of change in jargon is off-putting.

The convergence to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred is indeed with us. It is not for the Government to decide who will win the battle of convergence and whether the recent Henley Centre report was correct in predicting that the television set will become the means by which shoppers interact with the marketplace, or whether that will come about through a major expansion in the use of the more traditional internet. Those issues will be decided by entrepreneurs who imagine how they can apply the new technology and successfully do so.

The Government have two responsibilities. The first is to provide a level playing field so that the best of the technology can be used by the best of the entrepreneurs. The second--I was pleased that the Secretary of State referred to this in his speech in Cambridge--is to protect the interests of consumers while the entrepreneurs make or lose their fortunes.

I want to concentrate on a particular group of consumers. It is important that we should look to the interests of the few as well as those of the many. We have heard that 95 per cent. of Britain has good television coverage, but my constituency is one of the few that has not. In Adjournment debates and on other occasions, I have brought the attention of the House to the fact that, although my constituency is in Norfolk, many of my constituents have to watch regional broadcasts from Yorkshire. Frankly, people in King's Lynn and nearby villages are not very interested in special offers that are available in Yorkshire.

More importantly, there have been occasions when Anglia's regional television has transmitted reconstructed crime scenes, yet the people in the place where the crime has happened cannot watch those broadcasts. They can watch crime reconstructions taking place in Burnley, although there is almost no likelihood that they would have witnessed those crimes.

I remind the House that 95 per cent. of the population put watching regional news programmes at the top of their television agenda. More people are keen to see their regional news than they are to watch soaps, yet those programmes are denied to many people in my constituency. Adjournment debates and other discussions in the House

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have revealed that there are many other hon. Members whose constituents suffer from that very problem. When I was preparing for an Adjournment debate on the subject, I found that between 30 and 40 hon. Members have constituents who have to put up with an entirely irritating and unsatisfactory delivery of the existing television channels. They have to put up with television that is meant to be watched by people in other areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who greatly regrets that he cannot be here, pointed out to the House in April that his constituents see themselves as traditionally Cheshire or even Merseyside-oriented, and they do not see themselves as Welsh. People in Wirral, South do not want to watch television from Wales. I understand that my hon. Friend invited the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting to his constituency recently, and she probably got an earful. I am delighted that she has been invited to my constituency in the near future, where she will hear just a little of what I am told week in and week out about the frustration that people have had to put up with for a decade.

It is a disgrace that the BBC, the public service broadcaster, and previous Governments have ignored their responsibility to attempt to fulfil their universal service obligation. That is why I have introduced a private Member's Bill to deal with the matter.

I respectfully suggest that other minority groups need to benefit from the introduction of digital television. Some of them have already been mentioned. The possibilities of interactive television could be particularly important to people who are isolated, without means of transport, in rural parts of the country such as mine. It could help many poor people and people whom we do not want to encourage to travel or who cannot travel.

There are many deaf people for whom the present regulations on the availability of subtitles are wholly inadequate. They are the very people who could benefit most from the introduction of the new technology, but they seem to be almost an afterthought. The targets set for all platforms are abysmally low, particularly for the take-up of the new technology by those who stand to gain most.

I suspect that, in addressing the few hon. Members present, I am preaching to the converted, but there are many people who still think that the digital revolution involves simply a few extra channels and being able to watch extra films. It should, and does, involve more than that, and we should deal with it accordingly. We should not regard it as if, like colour television, it were a fancy innovation for the rich.

Digital television and the services that it provides should be available to minority groups, because the technology makes it possible to help people with disabilities and others to have a better life. It should be helping people who are housebound. We should be enabling people to receive their own regional television broadcasts. All those minority groups should be high on the Government's agenda, although it is clear that they are routinely low on the agenda of those who are seeking large numbers of viewers so that they can maximise the income and profit from their commercial ventures. It is important that the Government ensure that the ground rules are such that those issues are dealt with, not as an afterthought, but as part of how we set about delivering the benefits of the new technology.

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I broadly welcome what the Secretary of State said about the analogue turn-off. However, I believe that one difficulty remains in the path of delivering an early turn-off of analogue. We must first ensure that it is not the same 95 per cent. who receive digital television and that, in a few years time, my constituents do not have to watch digital Yorkshire Television.

One of the great difficulties in rolling out digital services is that they must co-exist with analogue services. Anyone who has ever looked at an engineering map showing the overlap of the different transmitters in my part of the world will understand the genuine problems that the engineers had in trying to erect extra relay masts to deal with the technical problems of providing a full range of programmes in west Norfolk. Those problems arose from the fact that analogue television interferes with other analogue transmitters, and engineers must be careful to separate frequencies of adjacent transmitters.

As digital television is rolled out, west Norfolk is low down the priority list for the same reason. Until analogue stations are turned off, the options for turning on digital transmitters are substantially reduced. We must be wary of the fact that, unless we encourage early turn-off of analogue television, perhaps on a regional, step-by-step basis, we will restrict the possibility of covering the whole nation with the new digital services. It is a chicken-and-egg situation.

There will be financial opportunities for the commercial and public service exploitation of the frequency space that will be released as analogue television is turned off, which could also provide the Government with income. The roll-out of digital television will provide greater commercial opportunities for companies to sell their subscription channels. We should ensure that some of that money is used to assist those who are in danger of becoming minorities in the new age as they have been for the past decade.

I am concerned about some of the proposals that have been made. Every argument that we have heard this morning was used in support of the roll-out of the digital broadcasting revolution. Our constituents may not understand it, but analogue transmission is a huge waste of resources because it is inefficient. While we are stuck with analogue television, we are stuck in this century and are not moving into the next.

The Government must do what they can to encourage the entrepreneurial private sector to deliver digital transmission, and in doing so to address minority interests. Why on earth is Davies suggesting that a special tax should be imposed? I have yet to understand the logic of encouraging a good idea by increasing its cost through the Government's approach to the funding of a public service need. When we wanted people to use unleaded petrol, we made it cheaper for them to do so. The price of petrol may be increasing, but we made sure that the differential favoured unleaded.

We have yet to find out how the financing of the BBC through the licence fee will work in practice. The idea of making the priciest that which we want to encourage is turning logic upside down. There is much to be said for offering free digital licences to pensioners from the outset and having a lower licence fee. That makes more sense. I hope that the Government will have no truck with taxing a new development that we are trying to encourage and speed up.

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I want to say something about the BBC, as it is an important issue at the moment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton takes a jaundiced view of the BBC and emphasises some aspects that have merited attention in the past but which, in the past decade, have been addressed in substantial measure. I do not think that it is fair to expect the BBC to behave in the same way as a capitalist entrepreneur on the convergence issue.

The BBC should be more accountable for the areas into which it moves public resources. I am pleased that the Secretary of State intends to ensure that the financing of the BBC will be examined dispassionately. For pensioners in particular, the licence fee is a large portion of their meagre income. It is much less affordable for them than it is for those of us who are in employment or in younger age groups, who value the services that they receive and will pay the larger subscriptions required to enjoy the greater choice available.

It is important that we understand the financing of the BBC, and that we look for efficiency and cut out waste and bureaucracy. I want to encourage the digital revolution, but it would be dreadful to lose the BBC: that would be too high a price to pay. It has as substantial a future as it has had a past. What it does in the future may, in some respects, be different from what it has done in the past. There are new ways of delivering services through the internet, or through digital or interactive television. The BBC may not perhaps be at the forefront of that new technology, but we must not prevent it from moving into those areas with the same ethos as it has had in the past for quality provision and for addressing the needs of minority interests that may be neglected in the commercial domain.

I hope that the Secretary of State will carefully consider the suggestion that I made in my private Member's Bill of imposing on the industry a universal service obligation. If he were to spell out now his intentions for 2002, it could alter the lay-out, the placing of masts and the use of frequencies. If we knew where we were going, we might take a different path from that which we would have taken had we not known where the end point was. If the end point is to be a universal service obligation--which I believe it should be--the quicker the industry knows that, the more effective it will be in delivering it.

If we give the industry the target of 95 per cent., the danger is that it will become expensive to cover the other 5 per cent., and we will have to do things differently from the way we would have done them had we known what the position was from the outset. That is what happened with analogue. Early decision and guidance from the Government are important, although I accept that the Secretary of State has been wise in taking a cautious, step-by-step approach.

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